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'Pharma bro' stirs mixed feelings in his ancestral Albanian village

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'Pharma bro' stirs mixed feelings in his ancestral Albanian village

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By Benet Koleka SHKREL, Albania (Reuters) – Dubbed the “most hated man in America” by the U.S. press, pharmaceutical entrepreneur Martin Shkreli has brought both pride and shame to his home village in Albania from which he takes his name. The 34-year-old former drug company executive once claimed he was the most successful Albanian in the world. But locals in the mountain village of Shkrel where he hails from are divided over “pharma bro”, who is vilified for raising the price of a life-saving drug by 5,000 percent and is now on trial for securities fraud in New York. “We heard he had invented a cure for cancer and rejoiced that a fellow highlander had turned out to be a great scientist,” said Pjerin Ivanaj, 54, a social insurance office worker, mistaking Shkreli’s purchase of an anti-infection drug often used for HIV/AIDS patients. “But we felt very bad when we learned from the internet and radio that he had pushed the price up so high.” Shkreli outraged patients and U.S. lawmakers by raising the price of the anti-infection drug Daraprim to $750 a pill, from $13.50, in 2015, when he was chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals. He is on trial on charges unrelated to the price hike – for deceiving investors while managing two hedge funds and drug company Retrophin between 2009 and 2014. Shkreli’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, declined to comment for this story.

ROLE MODEL Albania emerged from strict communist isolation in the early 1990s though prosperity has eluded the small Balkan nation. In many ways, Shkreli is a role model for the more than half of Albania’s three million residents who, polls show, would like to move abroad to have a better life – and for many too in his remote home village of 3,500, 125km (78 miles) north of the capital Tirana, “He is not an ordinary man. The newspapers would not write about an ordinary man. He is important in business. The American Congress have had dealings with him. The courts have had dealings with him,” said Fran Shkreli, 66, who is not related to Martin Shkreli. “He looks like a successful man and I am not ashamed of him.” Many were unaware Shkreli had said he was more financially successful than fellow Albanian Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Nobel Peace Prize winner canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint – a comment which triggered a deluge of criticism in social media. When asked what he thought about the comparison, Fran Shkreli said: “He must be wrong in the head.” At the local bar in Dedaj, the administrative centre of Shkrel, owner Nikolin Sterkaj defended Shkreli as he served his customers Montenegrin beer. “It is capitalism. He has the right to do anything with the prices of his goods on the market,” said Sterkaj, who worked for more than a decade in neighbouring Italy before opening his bar. In his office, next door to the bar, Gjovalin Rrakaj, a municipal clerk who said his wife was related to Shkreli, said people were disappointed to hear he had raised the price of a medicine. “As Albanians we feel we should help people,” he said. Some in the village remembered the Shkreli family, saying they had moved to Montenegro many years ago and to the United States in the mid-1960s. Their houses are no longer standing and only one uncle has come back to visit. Martin Shkreli was born and raised in Brooklyn, where other immigrants from Shkrel also ended up. Today villagers say they struggle to make a living from growing lavender and tobacco, and raising livestock. Money from migrants to Italy and Greece has dwindled because of the economic woes of those countries. They complain too about infrastructure, saying the area is becoming arid because money to build an aqueduct has been stolen. “People have left because this is the most uninhabitable place on earth and nobody has done anything for this area in 25 years,” said Ejell Kapllaj, 55.     (Additional reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Richard Balmforth)
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